(Easter, So What? – Part 4)
May 14, 2017
By John Partridge*
Acts 2:42-47 John 10:1-10 1 Peter 2:19-25
In in the midst of our polarized and inflammatory political debate, if you are on the internet you have probably heard the derogatory and disparaging term “sheeple.” The word “sheeple” is intended to refer to people of an opposing political viewpoint and accuse them of blindly following the leaders of their political or religious organizations without giving any thought to whether those leaders are right, wrong, just, or unjust. The difficulty for us, as the followers of Jesus Christ, is that Jesus, as well as the writers of the Old and New Testaments, often describe the followers of God as sheep. And so, as we conclude our examination of the meaning of Easter, I want to spend some time today struggling with how being a sheep can be such a bad thing, if that is almost the same sort of language that Jesus used to describe us.
We begin this morning with a fairly typical statement of this type from John 10:1-10 where we hear Jesus address the leaders of Israel saying:
10:1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Jesus describes his followers as sheep but he also draws an important distinction by saying that he is the only good shepherd. Others will act like shepherds, portray themselves as shepherds, describe themselves as shepherds, insist that they have been elected as shepherds, and even demand that the sheep follow them, all so that they can attempt to steal the sheep from the one true shepherd to whom they belong. These false shepherds, Jesus said, only come as thieves and their goals amount to no more than theft, murder and destruction. In stark contrast, Jesus, the good shepherd, came so that his sheep might have life to the fullest.
In his pastoral letter to churches in the Mediterranean, Peter touches on this same theme. Peter teaches and encourages the followers of Jesus whose beliefs are in the minority and who they have begun to face increasing persecution. (1 Peter 2:19-25)
19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Peter reminds us that as followers of Jesus, we are called to live our lives according to his example. Because Jesus was insulted, abused, and even killed, without any retaliation on his part, despite his total innocence, we are expected to do the same. We are called to do good no matter what. We are called to do good, even when we suffer because of it. Regardless of our suffering, regardless of the criticism we might receive, we must not stop doing good. Peter understands that it is possible, even easy, to stray from the flock like sheep but he is clear that being a sheep, or being sheeple, can be a good thing but only if we follow the one true, good shepherd.
But so what?
That’s the question we’ve been asking for the last four weeks.
What difference does any of this make? What difference does Easter make in our lives two thousand years later? What does the Easter story tell us about how we should live our lives? And again, we return to the book of Acts where we can learn from the eyewitnesses who watched the crucifixion and who saw Jesus, and ate with him, after his resurrection. What they did tells us everything we need to know about what we should do. (Acts 2:42-47)
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Because of what they had seen, what they had heard, and what they had experienced, the followers of Jesus dedicated their lives to four things; the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Let’s review that list for a moment. The followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and, as simple as that sounds, we remember that what the apostles were teaching was nothing more than what Jesus had taught them and nothing less than what they have recorded and passed down to us. What the disciples taught is what we find in the gospels, the Old and New Testaments, and what we regularly study today. They also devoted themselves to fellowship, to simply being together, to friendship, to worshipping together, to studying and learning together.
They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. This might be interpreted was sharing communion together, but what is more likely is that it means that they shared meals together. Sharing meals is something that we do with people with whom we are both friendly and familiar, and in ancient societies this familiarity is implied even more strongly. There are few things in the time of the New Testament that demonstrated closeness better than sharing meals together.
And finally, they devoted themselves to praying together. Two things stand out in that one simple phrase. First, they prayed whenever they were together, which we often do, but second, their prayers were not simply cursory, or routine, or a mere formality, they devoted themselves to prayer. Their prayers were common, deep, frequent, fervent, and filled with dedication and devotion.
All of the believers were together, they shared what they had… together, and they even shared with people who were in need, even if they weren’t believers. Every day they spent time… together in the temple courts worshipping, teaching, studying, and learning… together. Over and over and over we hear this story about people who not only followed Jesus but whom together, created a place where everyone could… belong. You didn’t need to be rich, the poor could belong. You didn’t need to be Jewish; Greeks, Romans, foreigners and other Gentiles could all belong. Both the educated and the uneducated could belong; both men and women could belong. One of the substantially distinctive elements of the early church following the resurrection of Jesus was that it was a place of belonging. The things that they did together were so well known by the people of their community that everyone who knew them, or who knew about them, had a favorable opinion of them. Everybody liked them because they did good for everyone.
So, as we live in a culture where behaving like sheep, and being criticized as “sheeple” is clearly not a good thing, how are we to understand it when Jesus himself refers to his followers (and everyone else) as sheep?
First of all, Jesus described people as sheep because it was a handy metaphor that everyone could understand. More often than not, throughout history, our human nature causes us to behave in ways that are much like sheep.
We’ve earned it.
We wander away from the truth. We lose our way. We follow politics, political parties, and political leaders, Democrat and Republican and everything in-between, when they lead us in directions that aren’t good for us, and even when they follow paths that run contrary to the teachings of Jesus. We follow religious leaders even when what they teach is not based upon, and sometimes totally contrary to, the teaching of Jesus or anything supported by scripture.
However, there are those people who act like wolves and the results, among humans, can be just as dangerous and just as deadly, as they are in the animal kingdom.
So are we sheeple?
Is that a bad thing?
Yes, it’s bad.
And yes, sometimes we earn the criticism that is directed at us. But here is the difference: Jesus described us as sheep because it was a handy metaphor to describe how prone we are to wander away but also to describe our need for leaders that care for us at the risk of their own lives. At the same time, Jesus recognizes that we are a lot smarter than sheep. We make poor choices because we simply aren’t thinking. We get into trouble because we aren’t careful and because we are not using the intelligence that God gave us. We are capable of making good decisions and we can return to the right path when we make mistakes.
There are three lessons from today:
First, there is only one good shepherd. Our real leader is not an elected official, or a country, or even a pastor or bishop. The one person, the one example that we trust, is Jesus. Everyone else should be followed with significant skepticism and regularly compared to Jesus, and what he has taught us, to make sure that we are staying on the right paths.
Being a sheep is not a bad thing, as long as we follow the right shepherd.
Second, do good always. Even if people criticize you, or persecute you, or harass you, or cause you suffering and pain, do good anyway. Everyone around you should know who you are because of the good things that you are doing.
Third, we must dedicate our lives to learning what we have been taught, to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayer. We must dedicate our lives, together, to creating a place where everyone can belong regardless of where they came from, what they may, or may not, have done in the past, or anything else.
The church must be a place of belonging.
If we can do these things, then I don’t care if someone wants to call us sheeple…
Because when do that, then we will truly be…
And that’s a good thing.
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.